"Political Correctness" and Its Dangerous Antithesis
Updated: Nov 24, 2021
[This story was originally published in The Policy on August 4, 2016.]
Words are protected, but they can still be dangerous.
Throughout the 2016 election, “political correctness” has been brought into public discourse again and again, taking center stage throughout the Republican primaries as evidence for America’s supposed move away from greatness. It was the real enemy at which the most hateful vitriol was directed during the GOP’s four days in Cleveland, even more so than “the devil”: Hillary Clinton.
Donald Trump has leveraged his vehement opposition to political correctness as an asset to his campaign from the beginning. His “tell-it-like-it-is” style has been the banner under which he has attacked Mexicans, women, Muslims, prisoners of war, and now, most recently, infants and Gold Star families. And whenever this strategy is called out for what it is and interrogated in the light, he responds as such:
Divert away from the question and blame PC culture. “What I say is what I say.” That’s the game plan, period. He’s done it time and time again, and, while it infuriates his opponents, it only wins him stronger affinity from his supporters. His whole campaign strategy is to keep compounding bats**t crazy comments (there’s really no other way of describing them) on top of each other so that the media and the public can’t focus on one without being blindsided by another to distract our attention. And it’s worked.
Trump’s rhetoric is both building upon and further developing a culture of disregard for political correctness. A recent Pew Research Center poll shows that, as of last month, this disregard is deeply partisan and uniquely racial, although widespread in the United States.
Political correctness is not just entering into the American socio-cultural psyche; there is a long history of its use and interpretation throughout our country’s history that illuminates its current role in political discourse, as well as the lasting dangers these debates pose to our country’s political foundation.
Originally, in the 1940’s and the 1950’s, “the term ‘politically correct’ was used disparagingly, to refer to someone whose loyalty to the Communist Party overrode compassion, and led to bad politics,” according to Herbert Kohl, a professor in New York. “Red” allegations were like a scarlet letter in that post-war time, and those in the political arena understood how powerful public rhetoric and allegations can be to advance political agendas.
After the Red Scare came the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, which brought tumultuous changes to the country’s social, cultural, and political climate. A Harvard Political Review article from last October outlined the shifting usage of the phrase:
“Historian Ruth Perry reminds us in her 1992 article Historically Correct that, during the early days of modern ‘political correctness,’ both sides of the aisle were active participants. ‘Each side felt that the other side was standing in the way of liberation,’ she observed. Phrases like ‘civil rights’, ‘Black power’, and ‘feminist’ became popular among liberals, while the House Un-American Activities Committee served as a bastion of anti-communist conservatism. Each side felt being politically correct was beneficial to society. Neither side ‘owned’ the term, and it was for a time helpful and accepted to be politically correct.”
Both conservatives and liberals crusaded to improve the country, albeit through their unique worldviews and means.
Political correctness, as we now know it, began to really take shape during the 1980’s and 1990’s. College campuses across the country began to erupt in scrutiny over their curricula. Students and professors pushed back on the white, Western, heteronormative, male slant that dominated the American higher education canon of the day, as the contributions of women and non-Western cultures were not addressed in the classroom or on campus. This caused a rift between the progressive intellectual elite and the traditionalist working middle-class that is still pronounced today.
As the new millennium approached, “political correctness was no longer a compliment, but a term laced with partisan feeling, owned by the left and despised by the right.” The culture wars of the 1990’s further deepened and widened the rift between the two ideological polarities in our country. Rather than drawing distinctions between policy solutions or politics, public rhetoric darkened more towards demonizing the other side and questioning their morality. Partially fueled by Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution of 1994, American politics became heavily divided along partisan lines, and “political correctness” was one of the wedges that the GOP deployed to slander the left and pry their way into the majority in Congress.
Today, Gingrich’s child has come to term. It’s not surprising, given the inflammatory rhetoric and fire-and-brimstone attacks against liberal policies, that eight years of an Obama presidency would cause the right to throw everything in and the kitchen sink.
Accusations of media bias, painting intellectualism as dangerous, and publically discounting the truth and value behind good science and journalism are now the main vehicles through which attacks against PC culture are now directed. Facts are fluid and relative, unaccountable to those who (mis)use them, and can be morphed to fit with either party’s talking points. Through the radical rebuke of political correctness in our lifetime, the social mores that have underpinned our American social contract (respect, decency, diversity, legitimacy, etc.) have been twisted and contorted, or disregarded completely, as a deranged demagogue and his supporters now brazenly speak and act against those who don’t look, think, or act like them.
Speech is protected under the First Amendment; that is a right to which all in our country are entitled. However, the Supreme Court has historically placed certain judicial constraints on speech, especially when that speech is false, obscene, or infringes on the shared social interest of the nation. As Justice Frank Murphy wrote in his decision in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire in 1942:
“There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or ‘fighting’ words those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.”
Listen to the Full Frontal with Samantha Bee team interview GOP delegates in Cleveland about political correctness to see how central a role it is playing in this year’s election:
But not all of the PC opposition is so civil. The New York Times compiled footage from Trump rallies over the past year of supporters yelling racial slurs, expletives, and inflammatory defamation of Muslims, immigrants, women, Hillary Clinton, and protesters. It even shows the vitriol and violence that is inflamed by the rally and so quickly pulled out against the non-believers. [Warning: video contains unedited footage and includes “vulgarities and racial and ethnic slurs.”]
This is the true antithesis of political correctness; violence and disrespect, hate and division. Many say that we need to “bring back common sense” and use that phrase as a call to action to cut through the “PC police” of the “kiss-ass generation” today. And Donald Trump’s fiery rhetoric is giving people permission to say what they’ve always been thinking in private, freeing them from the “cruel shackles of empathy and mutual respect”:
“You can see how there would be something almost intoxicating about that for a certain kind of white man. He keeps hearing about ‘privilege’ but he doesn’t feel privileged. His hometown is becoming diverse in a way he’s not too pleased with — but he’s not supposed to say it’s a bad thing. His job isn’t great and his boss is kind of a jerk — but the last thing he’s allowed to do is act like Donald Trump and tell the boss where to shove it. So to him, Trump looks like the one liberated man, who can say anything, insult anyone, and get away with it. Trump is the only one who ‘tells it like it is.’ The more offensive Trump is, the more it reinforces that voter’s belief that he’s the only one willing to speak the truth.”
Needless to say, this goes much further than just one or two white men; this is happening all across our country, and “they’re doing it almost gleefully, with the electric thrill you get from violating a taboo.”
Those “taboos” are in place for a reason; they’ve developed as our country has developed and progressed, as more in our nation have been welcomed into the true American family and given the full protection and rights afforded to them by our Constitution which were previously denied to them.
Clint Eastwood said it best in his recent interview with Esquire:
“ We see people accusing people of being racist and all kinds of stuff. When I grew up, those things weren’t called racist.”
That’s right, Mr. Eastwood; it might not have been called racist, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t. When you grew up, women hardly comprised any recognizable portion of the American workforce and faced rampant sexual harassment and discrimination because of their gender. Blacks and whites couldn’t fight next to each other as brothers in arms in World War II or the Korean War, much less use the same bathrooms or eat at the same lunch counters. Gay and lesbian Americans had to hide who they truly were for fear of being discriminated against, fired, or socially ostracized. A woman who was savagely raped could not access the health care she needed out of social taboo and most certainly could not tell anyone for fear of being shunned and slut-shamed.
That was the America in which you grew up, sir. Thankfully, countless men, women, and children have fought for their entire lives so that our country is not like that anymore, so that our country is freer, more just, more inclusive, and more prosperous than ever before. Countless Americans have fought and died so that the America today is better than it ever has been.
They understood the power that words have, for both good and evil. Sen. McCarthy understood that. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood that. Harvey Milk understood that. Cesar Chavez understood that. Crystal Lee Sutton understood that. The Black Lives Matter movement understands that. Words have power, and rhetoric permeates more than just the nightly newscasts on your TV.
You may call it “political correctness” and the likes of a “p***y generation.” But it’s progress. And it’s not new to our country. And it’s certainly not dangerous to it.
The same, however, cannot be said about the words and speech that have mobilized many against it and the people to whom the greatest rewards of this progress were bestowed.